Are you tired of your orchard being a place where you work all the time? Instead of somewhere you enjoy spending time.

Do you dream of an enchanting place – like the stories you grew up with?

Where sheep and geese lazily graze. Birds, bees and beneficial insects are busy giving you a helping hand. Children hide, munching fruit in the long grass. Where you have time to relax, lying down, watching the dappled sunlight moving slowly through the trees…

THIS IS A TRUE STORY about a woman living in far-off north Queensland who dreamed of creating an orchard like this. Productive, while also an enchanting place.

However, rather than cultivating tranquillity, she seemed to be creating a workload for herself. Her time taken up with mowing, brush cutting, weeding, fertilising, mulching…

Well, that is until she took a good look at the approach she was using and decided to do things very differently.

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“First”, she thought, “I’ll tackle the grass”.

Even though she mulched her trees, rather than spraying herbicide, the grass kept invading her mulch.

And one day, while she was out brush cutting and mulching yet again, she noticed hoards of white roots under the mulch. White, delicate and innocent looking tentacles, grass roots sucking up the fertiliser she had put out for her trees.

“No wonder my trees are taking so long to grow!”

She sat in the grass, feeling very tired and a little despondent. With a distinct feeling of déjà vu – of having experienced battles like this before. She recalled how hard it had been to grow fruit trees on her farm further south in New South Wales.

“IT’S THE TROPICAL AFRICAN GRASSES,” she said to herself “It was the same on my other farm. The fruit trees struggled and took so long to grow. The grass was so determined to dominate everything.”

So one day – when it wasn’t too hot – she ventured out with round bales of mulch and plastic weed mat and rolled them down one of her orchard rows, burying the grass.

Once the grass was dead, she pulled out the weed mat from under the mulch, and gradually worked her way through the rest of her orchard, one row at a time.

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It felt wonderful, seeing the grass dead, starting to decompose and feed her soil organisms.

The fruit trees started growing with a vigour she could only have imagined, with healthy green leaves and fresh new growth.

Getting rid of the grass made such a difference

But then, she thought, “oh no I’ve given myself another huge job  –  mulching”.

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Mulching was hard work even with help of Marcus her heavy horse. Days were spent dripping with sweat, itching and getting covered with ants and dust.

That is until she had a ‘light bulb moment’ out bushwalking with friends, and absent-mindedly kicking the leaves on the forest floor.

“That’s the solution!”

“I’ll grow my own mulch like the forest – extra layers of vegetation between my fruit tress and ground cover plants as ‘living mulch’. The plants will produce mulch right where I need it, so I won’t need to mulch anymore! The money and time I’ll save.”

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“The plants will also protect my soil and give my soil organisms a better diet – organic matter plus the sugary secretions plants release from their roots.”

“Better fed, they can then get on with the job of recycling nutrients for my plants and improving my soil structure.”

“I’ll also use plants that are deep-rooted to bring up leached nutrients and de-compact my soil, legumes to increase nitrogen availability, and plants to attract beneficial insects and birds.”

She went to have a look at what her neighbours were growing under their fruit trees and spoke to the friendly folk at the Department of Agriculture. But, she didn’t get much help. Everyone was busy mulching…

So she took the time to research different living mulch plants and, not wanting to be overly ambitious, tried them out in a couple of orchard rows, before eventually growing living mulch throughout her orchard. wendylivingmulchcomp

Now she loves wandering through her orchard. No grass to mow, bare ground to mulch, and her soil visibly improving.

There’s always some fruit to pick, insects and birds to watch busily foraging in the dappled sunlight. And merely a little machete maintenance, planting and seeding here and there…

Why not develop the orchard of your dreams?

And use this ecological approach to transform other parts of your farm and garden.

As this story shows, there are simple practical things we can do to let Nature give us a helping hand.

By bringing back Nature’s free ecological services we have less work to do, save money, create food growing ecosystems better prepared for the challenges of climate change, and create places we love spending time in.

What’s important to remember

The actual tools you use will depend on your climate and other growing conditions. In this example, from our Learning from Nature demonstration site at Hill Top Farm, the competitive African grasses needed to be removed to enable other plants to grow. However, not all grass is as aggressive. Try spreading seed and planting  legumes and other ‘ecological support plants’ straight into your grass sward.

Start with small changes first. You’ll be inspired to keep growing…

 

Lead image Ryszard Filipowicz. Illustrations © Laura Quincy Jones lauraquincyjones.com. Photos of Wendy – Richard Szczerba. Thanks also to Dianne Keller for sharing the art of ‘storytelling’.

    15 replies to "Orchards can be enchanting as well as productive…"

    • Bob

      Loved the photos, its looking good.

    • Waratah Nicholls

      Thank you for the beautiful story…I love the happy ending

      • Wendy Seabrook

        Thanks, Waratah – I worry that we have forgotten how beautiful orchards can be – like the taste of real tomatoes! I am looking forward to published some other articles on orchards around the world. Innovative orchardists who are using ecological practices and demonstrating that productivity and beauty can go hand in hand…

    • George

      Great

      • Wendy Seabrook

        Thanks, George!

    • Eve Grzybowski

      “I love this post, Wendy, and it reminded me of the tour you gave us when we stayed at Hilltop.

      Michael has just put in a tiny orchard of fruit trees and I’m hoping that he/we can implement
      your ideas.”

      • Wendy Seabrook

        Thanks, Eve! I loved writing it! It’s one of the wonderful things about improving ecological functions in our orchards – we can still grow lots of food but also create a space that’s lovely to be in.
        Since you visited Hill Top Farm and took our tour, I have made the orchard 100% grass free. I wouldn’t have worried so much if the grass wasn’t so aggressive and incompatible with broadleaved plants. Brachiaria decumbens – you probably have Kikuyu, are introduced tropical and subtropical grasses – great for cattle, but not much else. They generally produce monoculture swards. A challenge if you want to grow legumes and plants that attract beneficial insects as well.

    • Eric van Beurden

      Thanks Wendy for explaining your approach. Its similar to what we did with our food forest using a sweet potato ground cover. It hugely improved the soil and retained a humid microclimate at ground level. It was also responsible for a huge increase in earthworm numbers. The only problem was that the cold in winter plus the odd frost knocked them back and we did have to re-mulch and replant every few years. Still, that was a huge improvement on mowing or mulching on its own. I’ll keep you posted. Big thanks.

      • Wendy Seabrook

        Hi Eric
        I am using sweet potatoes too as part of my palette of living mulch species. It’s great to include food plants, and why not! When I started out growing living mulches I had similar problems from using just one species. I obviously don’t get the cold conditions, but we do get long dry spells. It’s why having a mixture of species is so important. Some will do well in certain conditions, and others at other times. We can also then add species providing other functions like legumes for nitrogen fertiliser and deep-rooted plants to help de-compact our soils. I show people how to do this in the ‘Living Mulch Toolkit’ – an information kit I am releasing next week. But just at this stage to the people who subscribe to my email posts. Thanks for your feedback and I hope you start to get some decent rain…. Wendy

    • Pamela McAllister

      Hi, Wendy. I live in the city on a suburban block packed with vegetation that is a garden I inherited, including locally endemic forest trees that invited themselves in and I’ve let them stay. I loved this wildness for a while but now would like to have more plants useful to me and native species. But I don’t know where to start. Changing looks like such a huge job. By the way, I love the way you’ve shared your own experiences. The painting of you is particularly beautiful. Thanks indeed.

      • Wendy Seabrook

        Hi Pam
        Changing a bit at a time helps! Next week I am releasing a handbook for taking a good look at our gardens. It would be great if you could use the process to get to know your growing conditions and then prioritise areas you would like to transform. I have designed the assessment process to be quick and easy.
        Please keep in touch and let me know how you go.

    • Gordon Lyle

      I have a sweet potato runner looking for a home now I will plant it under our mandarin tree.

      • Wendy Seabrook

        Hi Gordon

        Great idea, and what about some legumes too. These ‘running’ plants are great ground covers and fertilisers. I’ll be talking more about living mulch in the near future. In the meantime if you didn’t get the chance to look at this post ‘Why Living mulch beats mulching hands down’ – I’d recommend it. Wendy

    • Alison Bentley

      Hi Wendy, I look forward to the Living Mulch Tool Kit. As I was mowing my hazel nut orchard yesterday I was planning something similar to your concept. Being in NZ I’ll have to substitute plants, but the principle will be the same 🙂

      • Wendy Seabrook

        Hi Alison – yes the principle is the same! People often ask what species should they use? But that’s not the most important thing to ask….
        Our first question should be “What’s the Job Description”?
        What ecological skills should the plants have? Attracting beneficial insects? Fast growing canopy? Deep roots? Nitrogen-fixing plants?
        And what conditions will they need to work in? To do the job well, choose plants that will work in your growing conditions.

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